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What Should We Teach Our Children About American History?
The fiercest struggle going on in education is about who owns the past. Militant multi-culturalists say that traditional history teaching has brushed out minority ethnic identities. Their opponents say that radical multiculturalism leads toward national fragmentation.
February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
This touches on an immensely serious question. It is a sad fact that both European and African political traditions approved slavery, as did almost all the traditions we know about. It was the European political culture, however, that first called for the abolition of slavery. Neither racism nor the subjection of women is an Occidental invention, but political antiracism and feminism are. These facts are generally suppressed by the multiculturalists; they were not suppressed by Frederick Douglass.
What strikes me as perverse is the way portions of the Afrocentric argument seem to recapitulate nineteenth-century “race science.”
Actually it’s very ironic. Race science is very much what Leonard Jeffries is spouting at City College. The pseudoscience that asserts that blacks are superior to whites because they have more melanin in their skin is a simple inversion of the most appalling nineteenth-century racist ideology spouted by Southern slaveholders on the old plantation.
Now, I don’t know to what extent this stuff is really believed by large numbers of people. One of the things that makes it hard to come to grips with the situation is the fact that the press, television, and radio build up flamboyant racist figures. Al Sharpton and Leonard Jeff ries do not, I believe, represent the rank and file of the urban population. But they are good copy, and the press and W play them up. All this misrepresents the situation. The social forces that are driving toward assimilation and integration are, I am confident, stronger than the political forces driving toward ethnicity and tribalism.
The pessimist might argue that for a very large number of black Americans the last forty years have been bitterly disappointing after all the hopes that followed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education , and that the multiculturalist argument flourishes in the shadow of a real and disastrous failure.
Life is always disappointing; gains are never enough. But who can deny changes that would have been inconceivable when I was young? The white-supremacy candidate of the Dixiecrats in 1948—Sen. Strom Thurmond—recently argued passionately for the confirmation of a black nominee to the Supreme Court. Orlando Patterson, the eminent black sociologist, called America the other day “the least racist white-majority society in the world” with “a better record of legal protection of minorities than any other society, white or black.” As for the problem of poverty and the underclass and the homeless, that is not an exclusively black question. Look at New York, where plenty of homeless people are white.
The historian Philip Swoboda once remarked that Americans, being a people dedicated to a proposition, are peculiarly vulnerable to an attack on their cultural canon. Englishness or Frenchness or Germanness is a much less intellectual affair.
I think that’s true. Europeans have a common ethnic base. We don’t. And they have a longer collective history. What we once took to be our strength—our so-called freedom from history—makes us vulnerable to precisely this attack. I am sure that once the great majority of college professors bestir themselves, we’ll see an end to the sillier stuff. I don’t mean we should not have courses in other continents and other cultures and in non-European history. The more we learn, the better. But the cultic and Europhobic aspects of multiculturalism should wither away.
What is more worrying is the attempt to manipulate the public school curriculum. Several factors are at work there. Education is in a mess, resources are strained, and manipulating the curriculum doesn’t cost very much. If you are going to address the serious problems in our schools—safety, better teachers, better teaching facilities, more investment in education—that costs money. Also people think: We’ve tried everything else, so why not try this? Phenomena like excessive bilingualism and the so-called Afrocentric curriculum are worrying. But even there I think most Hispanic kids want to learn English, and I think most blacks regard themselves as Americans, not as Africans.
Nathan Glazer recently argued in The New Republic that there has been a long history in America of the politicization of the school curriculum and that squabbling over the power to make our historical myths has been going on for quite a while. He thinks it is being alarmist to depict our current troubles as unique. What do you make of that?
Nate Glazer is a very intelligent analyst, and he knows more than I do about the history of oublie education in this country. But he may have been on the firing line so long that he has become deeply discouraged about the possibility of resisting some of these pressures.
Now it’s quite true that much of this debate and many of the practices have a long history. Take bilingualism, for example. In many German-speaking areas in the nineteenth century the classes in public schools were taught in German. But that was a strictly transitional measure. Today instruction in Spanish is being institutionalized in some places, not as a transition to English but as an alternative to English.